Gulf War veterans often criticize the Department of Veterans Affairs as being overly bureaucratic, more concerned about rigidly following sometimes incomprehensible rules than helping sick veterans.
Even VA officials admit that they were slow in reacting to the mysterious illnesses commonly lumped together as Gulf War Syndrome.
But the delays didn't have to happen.
Internal VA documents show that in 1992, a little more than a year after the end of the Gulf War, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Edward Derwinski and his staff tried to pass legislation giving Gulf War personnel unprecedented access to medical care.
The VA wanted to give Gulf veterans free medical and nursing home care without the usual requirement that they prove their illness was caused by their service.
The VA documents show that the proposed legislation was sent to Richard Darman, the Bush administration director of the Office of Management and Budget, on Sept. 4, 1992.
Two weeks later, the issue was dead. The budget office notified the VA that it would not allow the legislation to be forwarded to Congress.
"I can't really recall why they shot it down. Obviously, we were trying to do the right thing," said Anthony Princippi, who was Derwinski's deputy at the time. "Certainly, they would have wanted to go forward with it in an election year. It would have been good politics to show the administration was taking care of veterans.
"It must have been money."
Another concern was the precedent of granting benefits without requiring proof the medical problems were service connected, said Chris Scheer, a VA spokesman.
"Initially, back then, there wasn't a great deal of really strong evidence. It was mostly anecdotal," he said. "It was coming through VA channels from veterans' groups. It looked to us like we might be dealing with another case of Agent Orange."
Some Vietnam veterans blame Agent Orange, a herbicide, for causing unusual
cancers and other illnesses. They fought for almost two decades before
getting special legislation to cover them for exposure to Agent Orange.
"It's still controversial with the Persian Gulf stuff," Scheer said. "We
still have no conclusive research that says why they're sick or that even
relates it to their Gulf
Since 1992, the veterans have fought for and gradually gained increased benefits, including special health examinations, a registry of Gulf veterans and limited coverage of some unexplained illnesses.
Princippi now heads a congressional commission conducting a top-to-bottom review of benefits and suggesting legislation to improve them.
"I had lived through Vietnam and I had lived through the Agent Orange debacle. And I was absolutely adamant that it was not going to happen to the VA again and it was not going to happen to the veterans again," Princippi said. "Unfortunately, it happened anyway."
(The VA offers a toll-free information line at (800) PGW-VETS - (800)
749-8387 - where operators are trained to help veterans with general questions
about medical care and other benefits as well as providing recorded messages
available 24 hours a day.)
Originally Published, October 19, 1997, Belleville News Democrat,
(c) 1997, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
GWI Anthrax Gen. Borisov Other Military Stories